The Unquiet American
In Albert Brooks's new film, we get another plausible explanation of why we fight--and it may be the most unsettling of all. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World devilishly supposes that Brooks is no longer simply the character he has long played onscreen: an irritable, carping, self-deluded entertainer. Now he is all of those things and a State Department official.
All right, a State Department freelancer. (Brooks never gets the regular jobs.) Summoned to Washington from his scene of quotidian failure in LA, he is told that the President wants to go beyond "the normal ways of understanding" other cultures--"spying and fighting"--to gain insight into Islam by discovering what makes Muslims laugh. There's no money in the assignment, and Brooks is worried about the need to write a 500-page report. (For the rest of the movie, that requirement will be like a bad tooth to him, demanding to be probed by his tongue.) But the State Department is more polite to him than was Penny Marshall at his last audition, so off he flies to India and Pakistan, with no clue about what he's doing and no ideas in his head, other than that he's a famous and important person.
This is unquestionably new territory for Brooks the writer-director, who has never before ventured farther than Nevada (except for a foray into the World Beyond, in Defending Your Life). The Indian travelogue he gives us in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is a novelty--though perhaps not so large a novelty as it may appear. In the first place, Brooks the movie character is a magnet for whatever iron filings of American culture might be lying about New Delhi. National identity clings to him like a fuzz, padding him against direct contact with anything foreign. In the second place, Brooks retains his essential gag of being the comedian who isn't funny. When he flops before an uncomprehending Indian audience (while doing some of his vintage stand-up routines), he isn't being new, just redundant.
Yet I think Brooks has worked a real innovation into Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. Whereas his humor ordinarily depends on deferring the punch line indefinitely, here he has delivered a punch line (only one) right where it belongs, at the end of the movie. You won't mind my telling, will you? There's no spoiling a joke that's meant to be unfunny. It turns out that Brooks, like a true State Department official, has made life better for one educated, middle-class woman (played by the delightful Sheetal Sheth). And all it took--laugh it up!--was a catastrophe inflicted on two nations.